Starting out, de Vries did work for institutions like the National Trust and Christie’s, artists like Grayson Perry and Gavin Turk and the estates of iconic ceramists Lucie Rie and Hans Coper. Five years ago, he got itchy fingers, so following the classic budding novelist’s dictum — write what you know — he decided to do something using broken ceramics.
All over the house he shares in West London with Chapman and Sonny, a hyperactive Manchester terrier, there is impressive evidence of his genius at repurposing and elevating fragments of the past. On one wall of the living room, there is one of his updated earthenware versions of the displays that were popular in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, when blue-and-white Chinese porcelain was a status symbol. For his, de Vries chose only white pieces, “all very much of a domestic nature, for use on a daily basis and thrown in rubbish pits once broken.” On the opposite wall, he has made a map of Holland using fragments from the same excavation site. “The idea is that clay from Holland made the objects,” de Vries explains. “They were broken and returned to the soil of Holland, then excavated and used by me to create the Netherlands again, thus completing the circle.”
You could almost see the peculiar poetry of these pieces as something spiritual, a kind of rebirth. De Vries isn’t averse to the idea. It’s obvious when he reconstitutes a porcelain Christ, then attaches a butterfly to it. “In Dutch still lifes, the butterfly is a symbol of resurrection,” he says.
“The idea of old pieces of porcelain living again was my starting point right from the beginning as a restorer. I find it so odd that you have a beautiful bowl and as soon as it has a tiny chip or a hairline fracture, it’s suddenly worth half or a third. So bizarre, because it’s still beautiful. I think this perfection thing is a very 20th-century, 21st-century thing. It’s like people having face-lifts. Because the value of a piece is still there. It’s in the maker, the painting on the bowl. . .”
“When you work with broken things, you get to see them in a different way than when they’re perfect. When I’m working for someone like Grayson Perry and one of his pieces breaks,” he explains, “I’m the first person to see inside. You can see his fingerprints, the movement of his hands.” De Vries and Perry occasionally collaborate. Perry will smash a piece, and then de Vries will put it back together.
Sometimes they use gold joints, which makes for a beautiful piece. In fact, they’ve just created a work like this for Perry’s show currently at the National Portrait Gallery in London.
One of the most startling pieces in his workshop is a hybrid representation of Marge Simpson, Springfield’s favorite blue bouffant, and Guanyin, the Chinese goddess of mercy and compassion. “I made the wig, but the figurine is late 17th century. It’s a proper good old piece, even though it’s damaged. If it was intact, it would be six or seven thousand pounds.” Abandoned gems like this hide in Portobello Road Market or on eBay, having little or no value to anyone except an artist like de Vries. He never buys something just to break it. One of his latest works is a collection of Royal Worcester porcelain — teapot, coffeepot, milk jug, ewer — the shattered pieces of each contained within a glass simulacrum of the original shape. “I always let the object dictate.”
Those objects have now directed him to the Château de Nyon, just north of Geneva, where at the end of the month, de Vries is opening an exhibition of his work. The astounding centerpiece of the exhibition, which was originally commissioned by the Holburne Museum in Bath, is “War and Pieces,” an installation which refers back to the sugar sculptures that once decorated the dinner table of the high and mighty in the 17th and 18th centuries. The more sugar used, the greater the host’s wealth. Eventually, sugar was replaced by porcelain, to the same self-aggrandizing end. “Battles were very much planned in the 18th century,” de Vries takes up the tale, “and before a big battle, there were always banquets and balls. So I thought, ‘Let’s have a battle on the table between the classic and the contemporary, between sugar and porcelain and plastic.’ ” On the “War and Pieces” table — surrounding place settings, which de Vries has also created — pristine forms based on 18th-century figurines stand next to plastic robots from flea markets and an atomic mushroom cloud, casting its decisive pall over the entire scenario. The piece is ironic, satirical, political, akin to something the Chapman Brothers might do, but it is also extremely beautiful, the pure white ceramic of the cloud looming like a giant flower. “I was drawn to the idea of something so ugly being so beautiful as well,” he adds.